The fate of the doomed Franklin Expedition, which set off in search of the fabled Northwest Passage in May 1845, is a matter shrouded in the utmost mystery. All that we can be certain of is the fact that it failed, and that it did so with a great loss of life. What occurred after it was last sighted by the crew of a whaling ship in Baffin Bay on 28 July 1845 is largely a matter for conjecture. All that we have to go on are the material remains of the expedition’s equipment, a handful of bodies and broken bones, and the oral testimony of a few local Inuit passed down over the years. There is also a brief written source: the Victory Point Note from King William Island. Dated 25 April 1848, this informs us that the expedition’s ships – Terror and Erebus – were both deserted three days earlier, having been icebound since 12 September 1846. Sir John Franklin was stated as having died on 11 June 1847, with the surviving party of 105 men being led by Captain Crozier of Terror. The note also includes text dated 28 May 1847, which relates to an earlier sledge party that left the ships, a duplicate of which was left at Gore Point. Both of these earlier messages concluded with the words ‘All well’. A profound piece of understatement. No other written testimony has come to light.
The subsequent fate of the diminishing band of survivors presents a picture of a desperate southward march. The terrain was challenging, the temperatures bitter, and provisions in increasingly short supply. Much of the food at the disposal of the expedition was tinned, with the tins having been soldered with lead. There has thus been speculation that the crew may have been suffering from lead poisoning, as well as scurvy. Tuberculosis certainly claimed the lives of some of their number. Somehow, a number of men from these ships struggled on for possibly another two or three years. Inuit oral sources report their hunters as having found and boarded an icebound ship in 1850, and having witnessed a party of forty men walking south on King William Island. The following year provides the last verified sighting of survivors – four of them – heading south, with later reports suggesting that Captain Crozier and another man may have been seen in the Baker Lake area in the early to mid-1850s. Inuit witnesses also stated that some of the expedition’s members had succumbed to cannibalism, before succumbing to starvation. It is thought, owing to archaeological discoveries, that perhaps thirty to forty crewmen managed to make it to the Canadian mainland before dying. In 2014 the wreck of Erebus was found, and then in 2016 that of its sister ship, Terror.
From these few facts, these bare bones, Dan Simmons has woven a fantastical tale in his novel The Terror, lately dramatized in the form of a series of the same name that has recently been made available on BBC iPlayer. Rather, however, than choosing to adopt a straightforward approach to creating a narrative involving a struggle against the elements for survival, Simmons chose to inject another ingredient: the supernatural. This takes the form of the Tuunbaq, a monstrous entity resembling a polar bear with part-human features, intimately bound to an Inuit shaman. The Tuunbaq was itself dreamt up by the author, drawing upon the Inuit folklore of northern Greenland, in which shamans would at times seek to create a being known as a tupilaq. The physical basis for this vengeful spirit entity could be fashioned from a variety of materials, such as skin, hair, and bone, even dead children’s body parts. Once called forth, it would be tasked with destroying a designated enemy, but if this foe managed to deflect it through the use of counter-magic, it could then turn on, and kill, its creator.
Having not read the novel, I cannot comment as to how far this adaptation departs from the book, but it makes for an engrossing viewing experience. The acting and the script are top notch, as are the sets and visual effects which convincingly transport the viewer to the icy wastes of Arctic Canada and its surrounding seas. And yet it transpires that none of this was shot on location, but rather in Budapest, and on the Croatian island of Pag, the rocky and desolate terrain of which served as a stand-in for King William’s Land. Whereas Hungary in January can be pretty damned cold, the same cannot be said for Pag, where the actors found themselves sweltering in the heat. Greenscreen technology was used to portray the Arctic wastes surrounding the icebound ships, sat all the while on their set in Budapest, and was used to create a highly memorable and convincing scene in which a diver is lowered into the water to remove ice from the ship’s propeller. Not only was there no ice in this scene, but there wasn’t any water either. It’s quite remarkable.
Personal rivalries are adroitly deployed and portrayed to heighten the drama, growing more intense as the situation of the men becomes more desperate. Ciarán Hinds provides the very embodiment of early-Victorian vainglorious bombast in the person of Captain Sir John Franklin, and his fractious and dismissive relationship with his underling, Captain Francis Crozier, played by Jared Harris. Both men are flawed characters, but it is Crozier who emerges as the more sympathetic and capable of the two, who once Franklin has died, finds himself struggling to maintain the morale and unity of his men in the face of a challenge from the nefarious Caulker’s Mate Cornelius Hickey. Adam Nagaitis puts in an excellent performance as the devious, slippery, and psychopathic Hickey, who provides a suitable foil to the fundamentally decent Crozier. Believe me when I say that you really wouldn’t care to be invited to one of his ‘dinner parties’.
Besides the hostility of the elements, there is, of course, also that of the Tuunbaq to contend with. Only ‘Lady Silence’ (later found to be named Silna, and played by Nive Nielsen), the daughter of a Netsilik Inuit shaman, knows of its true nature, but she cannot be coaxed to speak after the dreadful ‘accident’ that leads to the unleashing of its wrath. Indeed, there is later good reason for her not being able to speak. The Tuunbaq’s vengeance is reserved for the crews of Erebus and Terror alone. Assistant Surgeon Harry Goodsir attempts to befriend her and learn something of her language, but the fruits of his endeavours prove to be limited. It is Goodsir, played by Paul Ready, who comes across as the most humane, and principled, member of the crew, yet fate ultimately treats him as cruelly as his shipmates.
Both Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames, and Ian Hart as Sailing Master Thomas Blanky, also provide memorable performances in what proves to be a highly memorable series. It’s one of the best pieces of drama that I’ve seen in years, that I devoured over three successive evenings. If you’ve not yet viewed it, then do. The Terror is excellent.